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American West Paintings Bringing in Top Dollar


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

For people with a passion for fine art, high drama and big stakes, there's nothing like the draw of a good auction.

Hal Cannon, of the Western Folklife Center, attended the annual Coeur d'Alene auction in Reno, Nevada, and he filed this report on the scene surrounding the high-priced sale of artworks from the American West.

HAL CANNON reporting:

After riding up and down escalators, walking through endless rows of slot machines, I finally find myself in a huge ballroom. Six hundred chairs lined up in rows, a stage and skirted tables lining the perimeter. All are topped with paintings propped up for browsers to covet.

These are Western scenes, deserts and mountains, big sky, wild beasts, cowboys and Indians. It's barely noon. Folks are milling around, drinks in hand, murmuring, sizing up the art, sizing up each others' motivations for being here.

Unidentified Man: She would like to buy, yes, the...

Unidentified Woman #1: I've got my eye on a few things.

Unidentified Man #2: Looking. Exclusively.

Unidentified Man #3: See, I got tossed out of art in the seventh grade. So I'll, it's been my job to get even with them by buying everything I can get my hands on.

Unidentified Man #4: There's a time in life when possessions possess, and a time in life to unload. Otherwise your children are going to unload.

Unidentified Woman #2: To get this close to a Charlie Russell or a Frank McCarthy just gives me the chills.

CANNON: Russell, Frederick Remington, Maynard Dixon and a dozen more would sit up in their graves if they saw the prices their paintings are fetching these days.

Byron Price is the Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma.

Mr. BYRON PRICE (University of Oklahoma): It's finally becoming respectable in mainstream American art collections. Rather than simply in a Western ghetto, if you will, just out in the West, and that's the only people that are dumb enough to enjoy this kind of work.

CANNON: Some of the new appreciation is due to this auction, and its affable auctioneer, Pete Stremmel.

Mr. PETE STREMMEL (Auctioneer, Coeur d'Alene Auction in Reno, Nevada): When I opened my gallery 30 years ago, we had absolutely no business. I mean, nothing was selling. I had no confidence in myself and my public speaking abilities. Then one day, a flier came through advertising the Western College of Auctioneering in Billings, Montana. And I'd never thought anything about becoming an auctioneer, but I went to this class. It was fascinating. I loved it. I learned more about being able to make a living in those two weeks than I did in four years of college.

(At Auction) We'd like to welcome you and thank you all for coming this afternoon. The terms of today's sale are...

CANNON: Pete Stremmel lays out the ground rules: 272 works of art on the block, a 12 percent commission to the buyer, plus a fee from each seller.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) The cashier will be open throughout the auction, as will the bar, so...

CANNON: Folks scramble for seats up close and a last drink. Some try to curry favor with a quartet of floor men who'll be the auctioneer's eyes and ears today.

Unidentified Man #5: The Maynard Dixon?

Unidentified Man #6: Oh, the big one?

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #6: Okay.

Unidentified Man #4: The Frank Kenny Johnson(ph).

Unidentified Man #7: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #4: I'm right there.

Unidentified Man #7: Okay.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) So that's it for the announcements. I think we're going to start the sale right now. We'll start with Lot #1. It's an etching of a mule deer by Carl (unintelligible). We'll start it off $2,000 on Lot #1. (Speaks quickly)

CANNON: The floor men snap to in their blue blazers, refereeing the melee with big gestures and plenty of banter.

Mr. STREMMEL: It's a performance, and the auctioneer is like the conductor. You've got these four floor men. They're in the back of the room. They're in the front f the room. There's a lot of energy, they're moving quick. There's a bid over here, they go yeah. There's a bid over here, they go yeah. Half the time I don't even see the bid, I just, when they say yeah, I'm on to the next increment.

CANNON: With each sale, the energy and the bids steadily rise, with some coaxing from the floor men.

Unidentified Man #8: Try it one more time. He's trying to sneak in the back door on you.

CANNNON: And then there are those bidders who don't need the least bit of encouragement.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction): Frank Kenny Johnson, (unintelligible), we'll start this one off, $100,000...

Unidentified Man #9): Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa. I have $300,000.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) You have $300,000.

Unidentified Man #9: Yes.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) All right, $300,000. (Speaks quickly)

Watching an audience and how they react when a piece you know they're interested come up for sale, I mean I see kind of a shifting in the seat, a getting ready for something. There are times I can just sense a gaze that a woman is giving me, and I can turn to her and say $15,000 to you madam, and she will raise her hand. It's unbelievable.

CANNON: Jim Parks is an art Dealer in Santa Fe.

Mr. JIM PARKS(Santa Fe Art Dealer): It's really interesting 'cause I've watched people buy paintings for, say, $100,000 that I know if I offered them the same painting a week before at, say, $60,000, they wouldn't have bought it.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) (Speaks quickly) 80,000, 90, 200, 210, 20, 30.

CANNON: It's been over two hours and the pace is steady. One painting every minute. Here are all these contemplative paintings. A cowboy in the desert looking out over the vast landscape of endless sky. So silent, so soft. And at the same time, the picture is being fought over with taunts and yelps, prices rising and rising. Then the gavel bangs and the picture retreats to the serenity of a new home.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) Lot number 116 is the Charlie Russell Pegan, greatest Russell oil ever to come up...

CANNON: The prize of the auction.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) We'll start it now on the Charlie Russell, $2 million for the Charlie to get it moving here, we got $2 million.

CANNON: The scene is of a small band of Pegan Indians riding their horses at dusk across the plain.

Since it was painted in 1918, it has never been out of private ownership.

Mr. STREMMEL: (At Auction) Four million (Speaks quickly) ...and we'll go five, thank you. And now $5 million, five million one, five million (unintelligible) 5 million one. Not a lot of difference between 4.9 and 5.1. Going once, twice, all through, thank you very much. Sold at $5 million, $5 million.

CANNON: As the two handlers quickly remove the Russell painting and replace it with the next lot, I see the man who bid the $5 million make his way out of the hall. Michael Frost is an art dealer from New York.

Mr. MICHAEL FROST (Art Dealer): I was talking to my client on the telephone while the bidding was going on and I advised him to buy this painting 'cause it's a great painting, both stylistically, period-wise and condition. And the chance of buying another one of this caliber anywhere in the near future is going to be pretty difficult.

CANNON: Were you surprised you had to pay so much?

Mr. FROST: No, not at all. I thought it was a great buy.

CANNON: You're not at liberty to say who bought it? Or...

Mr. FROST: No, it'll be private for a long time.

CANNON: For just this one day, this picture is treated like any other commodity. Tomorrow, though, it returns to the dignity of some quiet suburban mansion or a vast office high above the city. I can't help regretting it will be hidden away. That old painting should get out more often.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. STREMMEL: Thank you all very, very much, a historic sale.

CANNON: Pete Stremmel steps down from the stage and appraises how the auction went.

Mr. STREMMEL: Great, it just did under 22 million, so...

CANNON: This is the biggest yet?

Mr. STREMMEL: Oh, by far.

CANNON: Two hundred and seventy items sold in less than five hours for a record take. The room empties and all that's left from the tables are Styrofoam cups that an hour earlier propped up fabulous works of art. For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon.

HANSEN: Our story of the Couer d'Alene Art Auction was produce by Taki Telenitis(ph) of the Western Folk Life Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Taki Telonidis
Hal Cannon